Volunteering Abroad is Selfish (& Why That’s Okay)

by Jennifer Bangoura

Deciding to volunteer abroad, whether it’s for a short or longer-term experience, is a big decision. You have likely considered many aspects of the experience from where to volunteer to how long to volunteer to if you should volunteer at all.

You might think that once you’ve made the decisions surrounding your volunteer abroad program that you can let out a sigh of relief. You think that your work is done until you get to where you’re going (and isn’t this about volunteering, anyways?). However, you’ve only hit the tip of the iceberg.

International teacher working with students in Kenya

Once you decide to volunteer abroad, people are going to ask you why you decided to do it, and as a meaningful traveler and volunteer, you’re going to need to have an answer ready. While it is a simple enough question, the answer is rarely proportionally straightforward.

Some people will ask you why you’re choosing to volunteer instead of taking a standard vacation; don’t you deserve a break, after all? Others will think “shouldn’t you focus on volunteering in your home community rather than trekking across the globe to try and fix the problems of other people?” (insert-scold-face). When you actually sit down to list your reasons why you want to volunteer abroad, some might even suggest you’re being self-centered.

While your reasons for volunteering abroad may initially be selfish, if you go abroad with a mindful heart and a sincere interest in the world, you can turn the result into a selfless experience. Check out the following four reasons why volunteering abroad is selfish (and why that’s okay!):

1. It’s a resume builder.

If you want to make a difference in the world, and in your future job searches, volunteering abroad is a must. It’s not only important to volunteer abroad, it’s important to know how to put volunteer experience abroad on your resume, too. Make sure you take some time to reflect on your experience before, during, and after volunteering, so you can articulate the impact of your service on not only the community you served, but also yourself!

Volunteering abroad will strengthen your skills as an intercultural communicator, improve your ability to work with people from a diverse variety of backgrounds, and change how you empathize with those around you.

If all of those are qualities you develop while volunteering abroad, then bring it on and keep on being selfish! The impact of developing the latter skills will stay with you long after your volunteer experience concludes, and these skills will continue to positively influence those around you, in the workplace, in your community, and even among your family and friends, as well.

Construction volunteering in Peru

2. It allows you to travel the world and experience new cultures.

While this reason may seem solely inwardly-focused, the result of someone volunteering abroad with this in mind is anything but. Volunteers who are committed to expanding their own world-view while serving abroad develop mindsets that allow them to relate to other people on a deeper level, both abroad and at home.

A meaningful volunteer considers how their volunteer work abroad will not only impact the community they serve, but also themselves. Nourish your inner curiosity about the world around you by volunteering in places like India, Namibia, or Vietnam. These types of location will teach you how to work in a culture different from your own, and serve a worthwhile cause at the same time.

To transform this reason for volunteering abroad from selfish to selfless, it’s critical to take time to think about your trip and what it means to serve the global community. How do you want the legacy of your volunteer abroad experience to be remembered (by yourself and the community you’re serving)? What does it mean to be a thoughtful volunteer? What is the bigger picture: how will your one to two week volunteer program impact your future?

Whether you’re an environment volunteer or interested in animal welfare, if you’re volunteering abroad you’re going to encounter a new culture and you’ll need to be ready to integrate and adapt. Think about how your life experience thus far has prepared you for your volunteer experience and how your skills translate to the specific type of service you choose.

Prepare yourself to learn more than you teach and remember to maintain a sense of humility as you live and volunteer in a new community.
Volunteer with children at a community center in the Philippines

3. You can spend quality time with people you already know and love.

Does your family vacation together? Do you enjoy one another’s company? Are you willing to compromise, make sacrifices, and embrace conflict as a unit? Why not consider volunteering abroad as a family?

On the other hand, does the idea of spending your entire volunteer abroad experience with relatives make you want to never volunteer abroad? If you consider your friends like family, they can make great volunteer companions, too!

Whomever you choose to volunteer abroad with, your bond is sure to be strengthened once you return home. Unless, of course, your relationship can’t handle the stress of travel in which case you’ll know to keep your friendship domestic! Be sure to consider if and how you can get along with your travel companions before you leave, to ensure you are ready to take on new challenges together abroad.

While you may initially want to volunteer abroad with someone as an emotional crutch (what if you don’t like the other people where you’re volunteering or can’t communicate with them because of a language barrier?), it’s necessary to know your limits and if you think you need a familiar face to volunteer with you then so be it. That person will (hopefully!) help draw out your strengths and help you overcome your weaknesses as you serve together overseas.

4. You can put your foreign language skills to the test.

Are you eager to put your Spanish to use in real life after studying it for years in a classroom? Do you want to see if others understand the French accent you’ve been perfecting as you order pain au chocolats and baguettes at your local bakery or coffee shop?

Volunteering abroad is the perfect opportunity to refine your language skills while simultaneously giving back. You are sure to make mistakes, and learn from them, in an environment you won’t soon forget.

Imagine someone asking you once you return from your volunteer abroad experience how you learned to speak Spanish so well. You’ll have the opportunity to talk about how you were volunteering on an organic farm in Costa Rica and didn’t have a choice, because everyone around you spoke Spanish so you had to learn quickly!

Whether you’re volunteering in China or Senegal, volunteering abroad to reinforce your linguistic skills is certainly selfish. Afterall, at the end of it you’ll be able to add “proficient” in front of whatever language you speak on your resume to impress future employers and navigate your global travels more easily.

However, strengthening your language skills while you volunteer, and the resulting proficiency or fluency you obtain, can actually be considered selfless! You are putting yourself out there in order to express yourself, and to understand others, in a language that is not (yet!) your own. You’re willing to make mistakes, look ridiculous, and ask for help (you’ll definitely need it!), all while volunteering abroad.

Volunteers playing with children in Ecuador

Why volunteer abroad at all?

International experience is essential for nurses, athletes, and everyone in between, even if the reasons that motivate you in the first place are selfish. With thoughtful preparation and guided reflection you won’t drive your host organization crazy; instead, you’ll leave the experience a more well-rounded, global citizen.

It’s also important to keep in mind that volunteering abroad is not a zero-sum game. Just because you choose to volunteer abroad now doesn’t mean you can’t take a vacation at another time or be a stellar volunteer in your home community when you return.

While you may consider your motivations for volunteering abroad selfish, what’s important is what you do with your experience once you come home to turn those reasons into selfless catalysts.  A meaningful volunteer will be able to put to use the linguistic, cultural, and social skills gained from their service experience abroad in their own lives and communities.

Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live. - Oscar Wilde

When you are deciding to volunteer abroad, it’s okay if your motivations are selfish. The important thing is to make sure that once you get where you’re going, you maintain a heightened and genuine awareness of your surroundings, in order to leave a lasting impression on the community you serve, and yourself!